These days, the best thing since sliced bread might just be sliced bread. We're talking thickly sliced multigrain sunflower seed loaves soaked in custard, doused with ginger maple syrup, and caramelized, or Japanese white bread slathered with homemade cajeta. Yes, the lowly toast, once pushed off of our plates at diners, is finally getting a second look in Gotham.
The toast wave has moved westward from its origins in East Asia, where Korean bakeries—and their American outposts like Dessert Spot and Tous Les Jours—have long served "sugar toast" or "honey bread", which are thickly sliced and well toasted pieces of white bread doused in honey or condensed milk. More recently, American coffee shops like Trouble, the Red Door, and The Mill in San Francisco have taken up the charge, creating American varieties like house-made apricot sage toast topped with butter, maple syrup, and crunchy flakes of sea salt.
In New York, savory toasts—particularly of the avocado variety—are nothing new, but sweet toasts are starting to find their ways onto menus at bakeries and small cafes like city-wide bakery chain Birdbath and the Lower East Side's El Rey.
Birdbath owner and baker Maury Rubin credits toast to the comfort food trend which hit the NYC dining scene a few years ago: "Toast seems like a late invite to that party," he joked, "but that's OK." Rubin also pointed to the fact that New York is in the middle of a bread renaissance. "There's a lot of interesting bread out there. For me it's interesting material to work with. When I first tried the sunflower seed bread, I knew what I wanted to do with it."
On a frigid Friday, I set out to follow the crumbs of New York's toast trail from Koreatown to Soho to Prospect Heights. Here are the toasts that really elevate bread and toppings to something worth their price tag.
Cajeta and Parsnip Toast at El Rey
This toast ($5) might wear a sandwich's clothes, but deep down it's really a toast. Mexican-American chef Gerardo Gonzalez grew up eating slices of toasted bread slathered with cajeta, a goat's milk dulce de leche. Wanting to update his childhood favorite, Gonzalez made this dish at El Rey, where he coats thick-sliced Japanese white bread with butter and sugar before toasting it. Once out of the oven, the slice is cut in half and topped with a hefty dose of house-made cajeta and parsnip pulp that has been cooked in milk and whipped. The combination is reminiscent of a grown up Mexican peanut butter and jelly sandwich that is sweet but surprisingly deep in flavor. The cajeta tastes profoundly of goat's milk and the parsnip puree offers a nutty quality to the half sandwich.
Pumpkin Toast at Milk Bar
This Aussie breakfast bar in Prospect Heights offers perhaps more toast options (both savory and sweet) than any other spot in the city, and it's hard to go wrong with your choice. For a classic toast, try the Pumpkin Butter Toast (pictured top, $4.50 for a whole). Oblong slices of sourdough toast are layered with a simple and slightly chunky house-made pumpkin butter that combines little more than pure pumpkin puree and high quality butter. The result is balanced between the pumpkin's savory, earthy notes and its natural sweetness. For something a bit sweeter, try the spread on a brioche or ask for the butter and jam toast.
Sunflower Seed French Toast at Birdbath Bakery
Birdbath's weekend Sunflower Seed French Toast ($4) straddles the border of toast and French toast, stealing the best elements of both and rolling them into one exceptional treat. According to owner Maury Rubin, slices of Orwasher's sunflower seed bread "first get a bath in a custard" before being lacquered in a ginger maple syrup glaze. The toast is finished in a skillet until the edges are encrusted in chewy sugar that taste of caramel. Below the sugary crust you'll find a sturdy, dense bread that can stand up to the "French Toast treatment" while still holding together its shape so it can be eaten on the go like a slice of banana bread—no forks required.
Red Bean Paste Toast at Cha-An
In addition to being the place to go for a full Japanese tea service, Cha-An in the East Village is also the perfect spot to pop in for an afternoon toast break. Choose the Red Bean Toast ($10): a two inch high slice of Japanese white bread is toasted so it's perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft and supple on the inside. The bread tastes of a croissant, but with the airy texture of a pan de mie. The slice is topped with a dollop of slightly cool, house-made, and not too sweet red bean paste. If you're feeling decadent, add a scoop of the subtle green tea ice cream that's made in house. In the words of a fellow dining companion "I'd crave that."
Sweet Toasts at Blue Ribbon Bakery Market
Blue Ribbon Bakery Market offers six toast options throughout the day. The 10 Grain Toast topped with Vermont Creamery Butter and Cinnamon Sugar ($4) hits the spot in the morning; it's what we always dreamed Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal could be. The slice is thin in comparison to the other toasts on this list, but the oatmeal quality of the bread lends it heft. Also available, and a good choice for afternoon snacking, is a toast topped with thin slices of Manchego from the cheese caves at Murray's ($5). It gets a drizzle of Mexican honey which creates a nice sweet and savory balance—like a cheese tray in toast form.
About the author: Devra Ferst is the food editor at the Forward newspaper and a freelance food writer. When she's not writing, she can be found in her tiny Brooklyn kitchen. Follow her on twitter @devraferst.